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UPMC's campaign rings hollow

| Saturday, June 22, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

UPMC is turning out to be too clever by half. The orchestration of a major public relations push is falling as flat as its sincerity is coming up phony.

The health care behemoth is out with a series of slickly produced (you can bet expensive) television commercials. The first is designed to bolster UPMC's image as a community asset with heartfelt anecdotes from grateful patients and beneficiaries of its charitable do-gooding.

And, yes, many of the vignettes are touching. It's a re-branding attempt to dispel the notion that UPMC is the giant, cold-blooded and non-taxpaying sucker fish that it believes a City of Pittsburgh lawsuit challenging its tax-exempt status paints it as.

The second series, just as slick, is an attempt to defend UPMC's decision not to re-up its contract with Highmark Inc., the insurance leviathan that's taking over the West Penn Allegheny Health System and forming the Allegheny Health Network, a conglomeration of city and suburban hospitals, some of which are in direct competition with UPMC.

But this series, more “WHAAAA!” than endearing, is quite problematic. It features a glaring lapse of logic if not a purposeful misrepresentation of reality and history.

To wit, UPMC says it can't negotiate a new provider contract with Highmark for “in-network access” because, to survive, Highmark's new hospital system will have to steal 41,000 of its patients to make it all work.

Layoffs! (One piece of propaganda says the number would be 10,000, another claims 11,000.) UPMC hospital closures! Quality care will be threatened with extinction! Paddles! Charged! Clear! Kiss your charity goodbye! Cutting-edge research will be dulled! UPMC won't be able to expand anymore! Woe be us! (What, Jeff Romoff's personal chef will have to be dismissed and the UPMC sign on the U.S. Steel Tower will have to go dark?)

That's pretty much the UPMC message delivered in one ad by a stern-looking UPMC doc, an iPad as a prop, and, in the other, by the chairman of UPMC's board of directors.

Hold the phone! There's a teensy-weensy problem here:

Isn't this the same UPMC that sought to make Highmark an out-of-network provider, which would have resulted in thousands or tens of thousands (or maybe even hundreds of thousands?) of potential patients seeking care elsewhere, cutting into UPMC's bottom line?

You bet it is.

And the message is ... it's OK for UPMC to shaft those insured by Highmark but if Highmark wants to afford those very same patients a competitive market — a choice — and, in the process, attempt to win over some of the very people that UPMC was ready to discard, that's baaaaaaad?

Why is UPMC so afraid of competition? Because it's a pothole on the road to monopoly, of course.

Two more things:

• UPMC attempted to launch its PR campaign on the news and opinion pages of this newspaper and those of The Toledo, Ohio, Block Bugler. The former didn't bite. That latter did — hook, line and stethoscope.

• Thursday and Friday must have been mandatory employee letter-writing days in support of the UPMC campaign; we received no fewer than six letters emailed from upmc.edu, all using similar talking points. A spontaneous and independent manifestation of employee concern this was not.

Colin McNickle is Trib Total Media's director of editorial pages (412-320-7836 or cmcnickle@tribweb.com).

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